MADELIA, Minn. – Jenny Yates was searching for a Christmas tree in a nursery outside Madelia about six years ago when she noticed the top of a headstone peeking out from the heavy snow.
There was no sign the marker was anything other than a lonely outlier. Even in the summer, the cemetery was overgrown with shrubs. A casual observer might mistake it for an ancient family plot.
It certainly didn't look like a pioneer cemetery with perhaps dozens of burials, some nearly 150 years old.
Yates was part of the cemetery association for a nearby church, so she asked a friend there in 2011 to help her clean up the discovered plots.
"We had no idea what kind of a project we were getting into," she said.
Could contain 42 graves
Since then, Yates has pored over records and tracked down descendants of people buried there. She believes there are up to 42 people still interred in the old church cemetery, which was created and maintained for a time by a Lutheran church started by pioneers.
She has no connection with the church, though she "cares very deeply about our forefathers," she told the Free Press of Mankato.
"I do not think it's right for them to be forgotten about in that cemetery," Yates said.
Despite three years of work, the 1.5-acre cemetery is no closer to being restored or cleaned. Private land surrounds the cemetery, and landowner Dick Koberoski has refused to allow heavy equipment to cross his land, Yates said. He declined to comment for this report through a relative.
Faith Lutheran Church tried to clean the site last fall, but canceled after the landowner objected, pastor Salim Kaderbhai said. The church still owns the property and has the legal right to reach the cemetery. An ethical responsibility remains, too, he said.
"We feel we have a huge obligation to that cemetery," the pastor said.
Translating that responsibility into action has been complicated by parishioners' long-standing relationships with the landowner's family. Kaderbhai said families pass land through generations, so neighbors can expect to know one another for decades.
Discarding legal barriers, it seems to be small-town politics, the cemetery's obscurity and an uncooperative landowner standing in the way of the cemetery's restoration.
Norwegian pioneers in Madelia founded their church, then called East Evangelical Lutheran Church of Madelia, in a dugout house in 1870, according to Yates' research.
One of its earliest members, Martin Gjertson, had been burying his children on part of his land since 1868. First to be laid to rest was 15-month-old George C. Law Gjertson.
Yates has found records of about 65 burials there, as recently as 1908.
That's about when the church was donated the land that its current cemetery sits on. Yates believes the church switched cemeteries because the new one was much closer to Madelia.
A bit later, around 1920, a road that ran next to the old cemetery was moved, likely because of frequent flooding on the Watonwan River.
The road's movement all but consigned the cemetery into obscurity.
Last fall, the church organized a volunteer cleanup day that was to involve 15 or 20 people. They canceled the plan once Koberoski heard about it and said he wouldn't allow more than two or three people there at a time, said pastor Kaderbhai.
But an effective cleanup of the site will require heavy equipment and more than a few people, Kaderbhai said.
Plan called 'too ambitious'
Yates' vision for the cemetery, including the removal of trees, is "way too ambitious for what this group is willing to do. They're willing to keep it clear and have some kind of acknowledgment of who is buried there," Kaderbhai said.
The pastor said casting a different vision for the future is part of his ministry, but so is respecting the traditions of his flock.
"Tradition is not so strong that it suffocates us but strong enough that you're dragging this weight behind you," he said.
Yates has learned there was a serious cleanup effort in the 1980s, but she found little before or since.
Legal rights to access
It is clear that the church has a right to access the cemetery.
Steven Sunde, a St. James attorney, looked into cemetery laws at the request of a relative of a person buried in the cemetery. He found the original deed for the cemetery includes a right of entry, called an easement.
There's also a common-law right for landowners to cross private property if it's necessary to access their land. This right would apply to the church and people visiting family members in the cemetery, but that right would be a bit more hazy for a curious member of the public, he said.
Furthermore, it would be a felony for a landowner to destroy a cemetery and a gross misdemeanor to remove monuments.
Though the pastor is an advocate for fixing the cemetery, it's not clear how many of his parishioners share his thinking. Kaderbhai said this is the first time he's preached in a small town, and he's learned about some of the politics that come along with it.
"The problem — I shouldn't say problem — is that they're more timid about things," he said, adding that their hearts are in the right place.
"There's no doubt that people want to do something about it," he said. "I guess they're just stymied as to how to go forward."
Untold stories of the buried
Money has been another barrier.
"We can barely keep our cemetery in shape," Kaderbhai said, though even he's not satisfied with that explanation.
"I always hate it when money becomes the obstacle to doing what is right," he said.
Yates knows her work will be complicated by a move. But she's not ready to give up. With summer comes a new opportunity to restore the cemetery.
The same difficulties remain, but the cemetery, and the stories of the people buried there, have something of a pull on her.
One was a baby girl named Henrietta Gerlinger, whose father was the first postman in town. After she died, her father moved to South Dakota, providing a good example of how families can lose track of their ancestors, Yates said.
"She had no family to move her, so I know she's still out there."